The Innocents by Michael Crummey
by Michael Crummey
It is both thrilling and disconcerting to come across an author whose writing and imagination are so astonishing that I prop myself on the couch with snacks and am entirely unaware of time passing because I have fully entered the world of this author's book. The thrilling part is obvious. The disconcerting part is: how is it that I didn't know about this author and all his previous books? How is it that he's not on everyone's book club list? And most disconcerting of all: who else do I not know about? This keeps me up at night.
My friend Holly recommended this book to me. She lives in a small town in Mexico where, before COVID, a man had a book mobile and she would borrow books from him. Then when COVID hit, no more book mobile, so, as an alternative, he texts her suggestions for books she can buy electronically. So I come across this author through a very circuitous route. That's what makes me nervous—the other circuitous routes I'm missing.
The author is Michael Crummey (I know, unfortunate surname). The book is The Innocents. Here's the opening paragraph:
“They were still youngsters that winter. They lost their baby sister before the first snowfall. Their mother had laid the infant in a shallow trough beside the only other grave in the cove and she sang the lullaby she'd sung all her children to sleep with, which was as much as they had to offer of ceremony. The woman was deathly sick herself by then, coughing up clots of blood in her hands. The ground was frozen solid when she died and even if their father had been well enough to shovel there was no digging a grave for her.”
That's for starters. It doesn't let up—not in language, not in story.
What is the story about? Everything. The plot line is that Ada and Evered, who are brother and sister, are orphaned in an isolated cove on Newfoundland's northern coastline. Still children with only the barest notion of the outside world, they are illiterate and know only what they learn in order to survive and what they invent in order to explain what they don't understand. They have nothing but the family's boat and the little knowledge passed on haphazardly by their mother and father to keep them alive. It's a riveting story of hardship and survival, and an unflinching exploration of the bond between brother and sister. By turns electrifying and heartbreaking, it is a testament to the bounty and barbarity of the world.
At one point, a man called the Beadle, who we have reason to believe is not on their side, comes on shore and this is how Ada describes him:
“He wore a shapeless black cloak and a black skullcap and his arms were folded around a book that she guessed was the ledger their father had ranted against. It could only be the Beadle, she thought, bearing down upon her and upon the cove, moving at the agonizing pace of a nightmare.”
The agonizing pace of a nightmare. That line kills me.
At one point Ada dreams Mary Orum is dying. Mary is something of a witch, midwife, and oddball who lives in another cove. In the dream she admits to Ada that she hasn't been too impressed with living and has this to say about it:
“It idn't much, the woman pronounced from her imaginary deathbed. A life, she said. I put more into it that twas worth in the end. Mary Orum nodded across at Ada. She said, I expect mine was much like everyone else's in that particular.”
This is 300 pages of exquisite writing and unparalleled storytelling. You are likely to want to read everything he's written, but The Innocents is a perfect place to start.
You can buy The Innocents at your local bookstore. If they don't have it in stock, order it from them. Waiting five or six days to support your local bookstore is a small price to support that community treasure. If, inexplicably, you have no local bookstore, and you don't have it in you to start one, you can order it online at Indiebound and Amazon.
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >